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Tennessee Senate Focuses on Improving Life for Children

Information is provided courtesy of 28th District State Sen. Joey Hensley, MD, R-Hohenwald, whose district includes Giles, Lewis, Marshall and Maury counties.

The Senate Education Committee passed a bill that would update Tennessee’s Literacy Success Act law to allow for considering more information when making 3rd grade retention decisions and providing more resources to help as students learn to read.

The law was passed in 2021 to improve literacy rates and get students on track in the early grades so they can become proficient readers by third grade.

Senate Bill 300 will allow school districts to advance a student to fourth grade if the student scores in the approaching category on their third grade Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) test, and if they score in the 50th percentile on the third grade reading screener given in the third year, if the screener is provided by the Department of Education and administered in a testing setting.

Students advanced using the additional screener data must also receive additional tutoring in fourth grade, and school districts must notify parents to encourage them to enroll their students in summer programming.

The bill allows school districts to assist parents when filing an appeal if their student is identified for retention.

The bill requires the Department of Education to report to the General Assembly on the number of students identified for retention, the interventions given to those students and the number of students promoted based on those interventions.

This would ensure students held back before third grade get reading intervention to catch up and allows the Department of Education to contract up to three additional online tutoring providers. The bill also provides additional tutoring to school districts for first and second graders.

Strengthening services for children and improving adoption and foster care

Lawmakers advanced legislation focused on improving DCS, streamlining adoption and foster case services and protecting children from abuse and trauma.

The legislation is part of a focus for the General Assembly and Gov. Lee to protect children. In February, Lee announced his proposal to invest $190 million in DCS.

Improving DCS

More children are going into DCS custody, and DCS continues to face significant staffing challenges resulting in unmanageable caseloads for DCS employees and preventing the department from providing quality care to children.

The Judiciary committee passed Senate Bill 531 to help alleviate the burden on case managers by gradually reducing the maximum caseload per manager to 20 cases by Jan. 1, 2025 and to 18 cases maximum by Jan. 1, 2026, finally ramping down to 15 cases per case manager by January, 1, 2027.

The current caseload max per manager is set at an average of 20 cases which has led to veteran managers taking on up to 60 cases at one time, while first year managers have 10.

Enhancing Foster Care and Adoption

Also advancing out of the Judiciary Committee were two major bills that seek to make several changes to adoption proceedings, services for expectant mothers, and DCS proceedings with termination of rights procedure.

Senate Bill 270 adds services for foster care parents and birth parents who choose adoption.

Under this bill, foster care parents are allowed a respite of six months without losing their standing as a foster parent.

For those choosing adoption, expectant mothers can receive support services paid for by the adoptive parents for the length of their pregnancy and up to 90 days post birth, as well as up to two years of counseling for the birth mother.

It allows for a virtual surrender hearing and clarifies that surrender of parental consent may be made at any time prior to birth, but consent has to be reaffirmed after the birth of the child. The final decision cannot be made anytime before the birth.

Furthermore, adoption paperwork can be stopped at any time, and a judge may waive the six month waiting period for adoption.

Senate Bill 528 is an adoption and foster care omnibus bill to eliminate red tape.

Among other things, foster parents are given more input and participation in cases of children who have been in their care.

The bill reduces the timeframe when finalized adoptions can be overturned and strengthens standards for putative and biological fathers wishing to hold themselves out as the father of a child.

The legislation also adds rape as a reason for termination of rights, requires DCS to file a petition for termination of parental rights in a set period when case involves egregious circumstances, and requires courts to enter a surrender order when conditions have been met. The bill moves to the senate floor for final consideration.

Prioritizing the best interest of the child in custody and adoption cases

The Judiciary Committee also advanced several bills to update the termination of parental rights proceedings.

Senate Bill 534 seeks to streamline adoption for a newborn surrendered under the safe haven law. It lowers the waiting period for DCS to file a petition seeking termination of parental rights of an infant voluntarily surrendered from 6 months to 90 days. It also requires the court to expedite the case to ensure the hearing of the termination petition is within 30 days of the petition filing.

Senate Bill 535 clarifies that if a parent or guardian fails to visit or support a child younger than four years old for three consecutive months, the circumstances rise to qualification for abandonment.

Furthermore, if a child resides in the adoption petitioner’s home for at least three months, the judge may waive the six month waiting period for the order of adoption.

To prioritize the safety of children going into DCS custody, Senate Bill 264 allows for the Department of Children’s Services to file for a petition of termination of rights after the department has removed a child from the home.

This bill also clarifies that “persistent conditions” means if after six months, the parent or guardian has failed to remedy the situation that resulted in removal of the child from the home, then it can be considered grounds for termination.

Sen. Hensley may be contacted at 425 Rep. John Lewis Way N., Suite 742, Nashville, TN 37243, or by calling 615-741-3100, by calling toll free 1-800-449-8366 ext. 13100 or by faxing 615-253-0231,.

His district address is 855 Summertown Highway, Hohenwald ,TN 38462; by telephoning 931-796-2018, by cell phone at 931-212-8823, or E-mail: sen.joey.hensley@capitol.tn.gov


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